The future is in Moses Lake

BMW/SGL Automotive celebrate carbon fiber plant opening

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MOSES LAKE - The future was on display in Moses Lake with the grand opening of a new state-of-the-art carbon fiber manufacturing plant.

The facility, which is the joint venture of German-based companies SGL Automotive Group and BMW, will produce a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic for BMW's new line of lighter, more energy efficient electric cars.

Gov. Chris Gregoire praised the partnership between the two companies and thanked them for choosing Washington and Moses Lake to be a part of the venture.

"Not only does this partnership create much-needed, good-paying jobs, it opens up new possibilities and solidifies our state's position as the leading innovator in the green-energy marketplace," she said. "You can see the future clearly if you come visit Moses Lake."

A year of design work preceded a July 2010 groundbreaking of the plant, followed by its completion in record time in April.

"This is a piece of industrial history," SGL Group CEO Robert Koehler told a group of about 100 people gathered at the plant Thursday. "The fact that we were able to conclude this within 10 months ... I think this is no mean feat."

Koehler said construction of the plant took half the time of similar projects and was even under budget, costing about $100 million.

The 60-acre facility includes a 110,308-square-foot process building and a 46,781-square-foot office/warehouse building. It could grow by another 60 acres to accommodate six buildings and 12 production lines over the next five years, SGL officials said.

For weeks now the plant has been running one of two initial carbon fiber lines, each with an eventual capacity of 1,500 metric tons output per year, according to information provided by SGL.

The plant has hired about 50 people so far and should employ about 80 by the end of the year, bringing about $6.7 million in new earnings and wages to Grant County.

Koehler said the company is a leader in the very small niche of carbon fiber, holding about 20-30 percent of the global market share. With the Moses Lake plant, SGL now has 46 production facilities around the world, 13 in North America.

"Carbon is our element, it is our core business," he said.

Carbon materials exhibit unique properties such as heat and corrosion resistance, low friction and reduced weight while at the same time maintaining high strength, according to SGL's website.

The company's high-performance carbon products are in increasingly high demand across a number of industries, from aerospace to automobiles.

Carbon fiber produced by the Moses Lake plant will be shipped to Germany and processed into lightweight carbon fiber fabrics before being fabricated into auto body panels for the BMW i3, set to be released in 2013.

The use of the high-tech material offsets the car's heavy batteries, helping improve the BMW i3's range and performance, said Norbert Reithofer, CEO and chairman of the Board of Management of BMW.

"Carbon fibers are a key construction material for the automotive industry of the 21st century and will change the way we develop and build cars," he said. "This plant is a milestone. It represents the beginning of a new era."

Reithofer said the decision to build the plant in Moses Lake was based mainly on the availability of clean, renewable hydropower and competitive energy costs in Washington state.

"Making sure the new BMWi is produced using renewable energy throughout the manufacturing process is very important to the company, Reithofer said. "We are thinking about sustainability not just tomorrow, but the day after."

Favorable infrastructure conditions, existing utilities, a skilled labor force and fast permitting processes were also important factors in deciding to build the plant here, according to SGL managing director Joerg Pohlman.

He also credited Big Bend Community College with helping to qualify local applicants for the Moses Lake facility.

Big Bend President Bill Bonaudi said the plant presents a great training opportunity for the school.

"We're trying to learn more about the process so we know what they need," he said. "We've gotten some feedback from the company and so far they've been pleased with the people they've hired locally."

Moses Lake Mayor Jon Lane said the project will give a boost to the local economy while potentially pushing the city to the forefront of a new era.

"It's yet to be seen how important this will be but it certainly is a milestone in the industry," he said. "Maybe this really is the start of the carbon age."

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